The Bridge on the River Kwai has become a tourist mecca. Although its a central focus in the famous movie, its just one of many bridges built by the Japanese, and bombed by the allies.
RIVER KWAI STATION WARNING
You’ve made it to the River Kwai Bridge! But a little warning: If you don’t want to go another hour and a half to Nam Tok, jump out here at this station before the bridge. If you’re taking the afternoon train and don’t have accommodation booked up at Nam Tok, you might need to come straight back yet another hour and a half straight away, and won’t have time to explore up there. The next opportunity to get off the train will be a long way after the bridge and it would be a bit more difficult to get back. Otherwise, the stretch between here and Nam Tok is probably the most scenic and interesting stretch of the trip, and we have some great content for it. Enjoy!
Due to the swelling of certain portions of the rivers due in the monsoon, 9 of the 688 bridges constructed along the Death Railway were were constructed out of steel and concrete. 8 were in Burma, and this is the only one in Thailand. A temporary wooden bridge was also built a short stretch down driver 4 months before.
The bridges were built by the Japanese Railway Engineering Unit, with British, Australian, and Dutch soldiers and civilian Southeast Asian civilians providing slave labour – moving earth and building materials, but not so much providing the crucial engineering knowhow as the film would suggest – much to the resentment of Japanese engineers the world over.
If you recently watched the movie, you may be looking around for the sandy bank and granite rocks of the final scene. In fact, the bridge and the surrounds bears little resemblance to that in the film. When the film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, came out to Thailand to find the shooting locations, he felt that this was a terrible place to shoot a film. It was too flat, and of course, there was already a bridge. He instead went to Sri Lanka – where his wife came from – and found a perfect landscape in Kitulgala outside of Colombo. The bridge in the film was a result of a competition that Spiegel put out for the design of a bridge to be made for the movie, which was won by MIT engineering students. They built that bridge for the shoot, and were determined to blow it up as a train ran over the top of it. The who’s-who of Sri Lanka were invited for the filming of the final pyrotechnic scene, but the dynamite failed to ignite, which left the train careening into a wall on the opposite side of the bridge. It took many weeks to reset the scene, and the spectacular final blast was witnessed by a small handful of local Kittulgala locals.
This real bridge was completed in June 1943, and was blown up – not by well-placed dynamite by courageous SAS, but from the air by Liberator Bombers of the Royal Airforce – in June 1945. It was used by the Japanese for 2 years – it helped to supply the Japanese war effort in Burma, and later helped their retreat. Interestingly, once this bridge was bombed, the temporary wooden bridge made downstream remained as a contingency. Throughout the war, that wooden bridge was bombed and rebuilt of wood 9 times.
This, the bombed bridge, was repaired by the Thais after the war. The angular struts at the beginning of the bridge are in the style of Thai rail bridges you may have seen over earlier river crossings. The curved struts are the original Japanese made of iron brought in from Java.
If you’ve jumped out here, it is worth noting that, it wasn’t for Pierre Boulle’s book, and the subsequent movie, this would simply be bridge Number 277. It is not architecturally more remarkable than those many bridges we have passed, and the many more to come. Ahead there are viaducts, cutouts, and tunnels, each with their own stories of woe stretching all the way to Burma and beyond, and many of these stories would be Japanese. This bridge, and Kanchanaburi, has – for better or worse – become an apt site for spending time learning and reflecting on these stories, and paying respects to those that suffered and died.
THE UNFORTUNATE STATUE
It is clear that Kanchanaburi its bridge has become a place of solemn pilgramage for many of those who feel a connection to those that toiled, fought, and died here, and most Thai people are on board with that. But we cannot escape the fact that the bridge is a magnet for tourist dollars in a part of Thailand that otherwise lacks one. So the interesting decision in 2008 to build an 18m tall marble statue of the Goddess Guanyin amidst a Chinese-signposted amusement park cum buddhist temple must be seen in such a context. And who can blame them – the Chinese tourist dollar is now king; a fresh bloodline into the otherwise anaemic Thai tourism industry. As Rod Beattie, founder of the Thailand-Burma Railway museum, says: “The site is so degraded by vendors there’s little you could do to degrade it further”. Arthur Lane, chairman of the National Ex-Services Association has said that “if someone was trying to blow it up and wants contributions, just send them to me.” I wonder if it would be harder to blow up than the bridge?